A Harmful Education Myth? Rethinking Learning Styles

Questioning Conventional Wisdom

Imagine being a student, sitting in a classroom, trying to absorb information, but the teaching method just doesn’t resonate with you. It’s not that the subject isn’t interesting, but the way it’s taught doesn’t seem to engage your mind. You, like many others, might have been identified with a particular ‘learning style’ — visual, auditory, read-write, or kinesthetic — as per the well-known VARK model. But what if the concept of ‘learning styles’ is not as concrete as you thought? What if this idea, widely accepted around the world, is more harmful than helpful to learners? It might sound surprising, but a new review by Swansea University suggests just that.

A Widely Accepted, Yet Ineffective Method

Learning styles theory has been around for decades, dictating that teachers adjust their methods to match the presumed learning styles of their students. The theory proposes more than 70 different classifications, but the VARK model remains the most popular. Yet, mounting evidence points to this approach being ineffective, even potentially damaging to learners. Despite this, a significant majority of educators worldwide — almost 90% — still believe in the effectiveness of learning styles.

The Hard Evidence Against ‘Learning Styles’

The crux of the problem, according to various reviews since the mid-2000s, is that there’s no substantial evidence to suggest that matching teaching methods to a student’s presumed learning style improves learning outcomes. The lack of concrete proof against this widely accepted belief is causing quite a stir in the educational community.

The Potential Dangers of Pigeonholing

One major issue arising from this approach is the risk of pigeonholing students based on their learning styles. For instance, a student classified as an auditory learner might believe they’d struggle with visual subjects like art or written ones like journalism. This belief could result in demotivation, hampering the student’s potential in those areas.

Similarly, the learning styles theory could create unrealistic expectations among educators. If a student doesn’t achieve the expected grades or enjoy their learning, they might blame the lack of teaching style matching their learning style. This mindset can further demotivate them from future learning, creating a cycle of negativity.

A Waste of Valuable Resources?

It’s not just about the potential harm to students. There’s also the practical aspect to consider: Is trying to match a student to a learning style a valuable use of time and resources? Given the lack of strong evidence supporting this approach, one could argue that it’s not. There are many other proven teaching methods, such as practice tests and spacing instruction, that can promote effective learning.

The Continuation of Belief and Its Implications

Despite efforts to debunk the learning styles theory, belief in this method shows no signs of waning. This persistence is likely due to a cycle of belief perpetuated by the education system: future teachers, once students themselves, enter teacher-training believing in the efficacy of learning styles because they were taught using this model.

But before we jump to conclusions, it’s crucial to recognize that the data may not tell the full story. For instance, it’s unclear if the educators surveyed understood “learning styles” as specific instruments or individual preferences for learning.

Refocusing the Discussion – Promoting Effective Approaches

Instead of debunking myths, perhaps we should focus on promoting effective teaching methods. The key question we need to ask ourselves is: “How many of us actually match instruction to individual learning styles, and what are the consequences when we do?”

Education is more than just transmitting information; it’s about empowering learners to realize their full potential. While we should acknowledge individual learning preferences, it’s essential not to let these preferences limit our teaching methods or our students’ learning experiences. By promoting evidence-based teaching methods and creating a diverse learning environment, we can ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed — regardless of their preferred learning style.

Philip M. Newton, Atharva Salvi. How Common Is Belief in the Learning Styles Neuromyth, and Does It Matter? A Pragmatic Systematic Review. Frontiers in Education, 2020; Link